December in your Wildlife-Friendly Garden
It’s no longer autumn, the days are short and thoughts turn to chocolate and sprouts (even if the sprouts just make a super Christmas door wreath). Sitting and working in the garden becomes a bit of a distant memory and it’s easy to ignore it – but do so at your peril! There are still things to do to create a good garden for next year and also ensure your garden wildlife is looked after this winter.
Frost, rainfall and winds are increasingly common, sunshine hours are nearly non-existent, it can be bitter with a risk of snow. You may not want to be working outside at this time of year, but you should force yourself. If you planted them last year you can enjoy scent in the garden even in December with shrubs such as Viburnum and Lonicera, also Christmas box is an evergreen shrub that will tolerate dense shade, while producing wonderful winter scent.
Top 10 gardening tasks in December
- Check your winter protection structures are still securely in place
- Plan and dig new borders
- Prevent ponds and stand pipes from freezing
- Prune open-grown apples and pears (but not those trained against walls)
- Prune acers, birches and vines before Christmas to avoid bleeding
- If the ground isn’t solid, harvest leeks, parsnips, winter cabbage, sprouts and remaining root crops
- Native hedges can still be planted and transplanted. These will provide berries and protection for your garden birds
- Take hardwood cuttings and divide perennials, and save some money on new plants next year.
- Make sure mice can’t get at your stored produce
- Check insulation and waterproofing on outside wormeries.
December is also a good time for having a bit of a sort out. Go through the 206 seed packets that you keep ‘just in case’ and ditch the ones that are years out of date and start to make a list of the ones you really will plant next year. If you are extremely bored on Boxing Day you can even sort and clean that stack of plant pots and wipe clean all your plant labels.
The bare branches of winter make it easier to see the birds active in your garden. Look for birds which you might not usually see. Blackcaps can now be a regular winter sight, even though they are traditionally a summer visitor.
Listen for robins (even at night) as they are one of the first species to start singing, with the males marking out their territories in readiness for the coming breeding season. They are also fiercely territorial even in the winter. Many species group into feeding flocks for the winter, but never the Robin. You might notice some robins with paler breasts, and these will likely be birds that are over-wintering from continental Europe. If you want to encourage a Robin to breed in your garden try putting up an open-fronted nest box.
In cold spells you may be able to see ‘cold weather movement’ of birds. Lapwings, Fieldfares, Wood Pigeons and Redwings may be seen flying over in large numbers looking for feeding grounds.
When the ground is frozen birds that usually eat earthworms will change their diet to accessible seeds and berries. In these conditions the earthworms will have moved too deep to be caught.
Keep all your birdfeeders well topped up and make sure there is a good supply of clean unfrozen water for drinking and bathing. Birds need to bathe regularly to get the maximum insulation from their feathers, as well as having a safe source of drinking water. Consider feeding more high energy foods such as fatballs during December.
Hedgehogs, amphibians and insects
Hedgehogs and should now be hibernating and amphibians and insects will have moved into winter dormancy. A spell of unseasonably mild weather may encourage them out, but for most they won’t appear again until the spring. It is vitally important that at this time of year you do not disturb sites where these creatures may be resting.
Lastly, if you are working in the garden shed this December, a glass of mulled cider, a mince pie and a pair of toasty warm goat socks will save you from the domestic chores indoors.
Remember what the late Geoff Hamilton used to say “Whatever the weather, enjoy your garden”. Wise words indeed!